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The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

The Films Of Hal Ashby: A Retrospective

Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s — Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc. — perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.

More so than cinematographers, actors or screenwriters, editors tend to make some of the best directors; they know story like no one else; the unsung heroes of many films sitting in dark rooms for hours, staring at shots, takes and dailies and hammering out a story, often when there wasn’t one in the first place. Hal Ashby was that editor.

His career divides into three phases. The promising 1960s: Ashby edited five of Norman Jewison’s finest films (“The Cincinnati Kid,” “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!,” “The Thomas Crown Affair”) and even earned himself a Best Editing Oscar for 1967’s “In The Heat of The Night.” At the behest of Jewison, who was toying with directing the film himself, Ashby kicked off the 1970s by directing his debut feature, “The Landlord,” a hilarious, poignant and insightful look at black and white race relations in Brookyn’s Park Slope area. He then never looked back, directing an unimpeachable string of classics; from 1971 to 1979 he helmed six certifiably excellent films, but Ashby flew under the radar for most of this period, at least from the mainstream. But he was and is adored by venerable filmmakers and actors working with Jack Nicholson, Julie Christie, Jon Voight, Warren Beatty, Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, screenwriter Robert Towne, cinematographers Haskell Wexler, László Kovács and Gordon Willis, plus an incredible list of musicians that included Al Kooper, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and more.

The 1980s, however, were much more unkind to Ashby. While it’s hard to pin it on one thing — it seems like a confluence of bad luck, bad decisions, self-destruction due to excess, and a stubborn refusal to get his deteriorating health checked out; a lot of it excellently recounted in the book “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel” by author Nick Dawson — perhaps the beginning of it was his first taste of real failure. After recoiling from success with drugs and reclusiveness, 1981’s “Second-Hand Hearts” was likely an odd experience for the filmmaker; silence, both from critics and audiences and this unraveling seemed to permeate his muddled process until 1988 when the director died early at the age of 58 from cancer.

Ashby’s quiet, compassionate and funny humanist dramas, and his gentle approach to directing which endeared him to everyone he worked with, didn’t ever receive its due until years after his death, but in the 1990s and aughts, younger filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and many more not only absorbed his influence, but vocally championed the director as an important impactor on their work.

We’re pretty much always looking for an excuse to discuss the relatively still-undersung filmmaker and we’ve found another one. Beginning this evening, Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek is putting on the “Movies by Hal Ashby,” a retrospective of his work (including some of the films he edited) which runs May 6—24. While unfortunately, some of the hard-to-find obscure films are mostly awol, the retrospective does include Ashby’s little-seen last feature-film effort, 1986’s noir, “8 Million Ways to Die” starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul. If you’re unfamiliar with his films we implore you to attend and discover what you’re missing (that is, if you actually live in New York) and if you’re not, we still urge you to revisit these gems many of which will include guests like Robert Downey, Sr., Lee Grant and Jason Simos, the U.S. Representative of the Peter Sellers Appreciation Society (no, really it exists).

“The Landlord” (1970)
A wickedly sharp and incisive (and ahead-of-its-time) look at race, white-guilt, gentrification and miscegenation, Hal Ashby’s debut directorial effort “The Landlord” only recently arrived to DVD in barebones fashion. The decision is a strikingly strange one as the vibrant, hilariously and wisely astute picture is easily one of his best even if it’s generally never spoken about in the same breath as “Being There” or “The Last Detail” (hell, it would fit neatly on the Criterion Collection). Beau Bridges, in what is likely his finest role, stars as Elgar Enders, a privileged 29-year-old white male who “runs away” from home to escape the clutches of his parents’ affluent and out-of-touch cocoon. His first move is buying a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn (much of which you can still recognize today) with the initial intention of evicting his black tenants, but soon Elgar’s perspective begins to change as he becomes empathetic to their collective social and economic problems even if all of them are months behind on their rent. Possibly a send-up of the rather innocuous “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” the picture outdoes that drama, by creating an inter-racial love triangle of sorts when Elgar falls for a light-skin go-go dancer (Marki Bey), and then simultaneously impregnates Fanny (Diane Sands), the wife of an increasingly disenfranchised and unhinged black radical. Co-starring a deliciously funny Lee Grant as Bridges’ domineering and prejudiced mother (which earned her an Academy nomination), an equally droll Pearl Bailey as one of the wise tenants, Lou Gosset Jr., and featuring an excellent soul score written by Dylan co-hort Al Kooper and performed by The Martha Stewart Singers, Lorraine Ellison and The Staple Singers, “The Landlord,” is a sorely undervalued and underappreciated gem not only in the Hal Ashby oeuvre, but in the entire cannon of cinema’s social satires. [A]

“Harold and Maude” (1971)
Ashby’s dark spin on “The Graduate” stars Bud Cort as Harold, a wealthy, suicidal teenager who forms a friendship with 80 year old Maude (Ruth Gordon) and swaps Simon & Garfunkel for Cat Stevens. If you’ve never seen it before, you might think your only cultural reference point for this odd couple comedy as being “the greatest love story of our time,” as Cameron Diaz’s character refers to it in “There’s Something About Mary.” But watching the film will reveal it’s influence over modern moviemaking as being much broader (Wes Anderson in particular did some heavy plundering here, borrowing the films center-of-frame compositions, deadpan humor and even taking Cort along for “The Life Aquatic.”). Easily Ashby’s funniest film, but also containing pure heartbreak (it’s hard to imagine the central relationship being treated with as much empathy — there’s that word again — by any other helmer), you can’t imagine a director more perfectly suited to the project: a middle-aged man who’d fully embraced the swinging Sixties, a humanist whose films never shied from the darker side of life, the film’s central characters feel like Ashby’s been split into two different figures. He didn’t write it, but it’s the film we’ll always associate most closely with the director. The soundtrack, by Cat Stevens, is a hall-of-famer, but remarkably wasn’t available until a super-limited 2007 vinyl, featuring liner notes from Cameron Crowe, was released. We would urge you to get it, but copies are now going for as much as $600… [A]

“The Last Detail” (1973)
God damn if Jack Nicholson didn’t have one of the greatest runs an actor could have in the early 1970s. Between 1970 and 1975, the actor, who only really attained stardom in 1969’s “Easy Rider,” starred in “Five Easy Pieces,” “Carnal Knowledge,” “The King Of Marvin Gardens,” “Chinatown” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and slap in the middle of all of these was Hal Ashby’s wondrous “The Last Detail.” Nicholson stars, in a role that fits like a glove, as one of two sailors (the other being the marvelous Otis Young, who mostly gave up acting afterwards to become a pastor and college professor), who are ordered to escort a young colleague, Meadows (Randy Quaid, well before he went off his nut) to Naval Prison in New Hampshire, for a chronically unfair 8-year-sentence for a minor crime. Like a real-world version of “On The Town,” Nicholson and Young decide to give Meadows a proper send off, full of sex and drinking, and it’s this realism that makes the film sing: the script, by Robert Towne, is never rose-tinted: it’s clear that Nicholson’s quest is making things worse, rather than better, and however much the men might bond, it doesn’t last, as the fiercely unsentimental ending makes clear. It’s a film for which the term ‘bittersweet,’ a term that Ashby firmly made his own, was invented. [A]

“Shampoo” (1975)
Considering the pathetic excuses for what pass as relationship comedies these days, it’s possible that “Shampoo” looks even better in hindsight. But that would do the brilliance of the film a disservice. A passion project of star Warren Beatty, who co-wrote the script with Robert Towne, the film was designed as a contemporary reworking of restoration comedies like “The Country Wife,” with Ashby turning his eye on the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, and commenting on the just-finished Nixon era. The archetype of the cad-rethinking-his-life is a famililar one now, but Beatty essentially invented it for the modern era here, playing a womanizing hairdresser, bedding both the wife, daughter and mistress of the man he wants to back his own salon. The film might owe a debt of gratitude to “Alfie,” but it’s infinitely more successful — bitingly funny, just the right side of farce, but simultaneously consistently insightful about men and women fucking each other. The supporting cast is terrific, particularly Jack Warden, as the man Beatty cuckolds, the Oscar-winning Lee Grant and Julie Christie, here second only to Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” in the Jesus-Christ-was-there-ever-a-woman-as-beautiful-as-this-before-or-since stakes. But it’s Beatty at the center of it, and he was never better. The great László Kovács shoots it gloriously, and Paul Simon’s score is wonderful too, overshadowed by his contribution to “The Graduate,” but just as vital here. [A]

“Bound for Glory” (1976)
Ashby wasn’t the first choice to direct the biopic of Woody Guthrie, the beloved American folk singer, poet and Bob Dylan mentor, but it wasn’t till he replaced cinematographer Haskell Wexler at the helm that the dustbowl-era project really came together. The director was never one to put out a hagiography, and “Bound for Glory” portrays Guthrie in a typically unromantic fashion detailing his frequent abandonment of his wife and children during the harsh Depression Era to go on the road and give voice to disenfranchised workers. After offering the role of Guthrie to everyone from Bob Dylan to Al Pacino, relative unknown actor David Carradine was cast much to the chagrin of the studio. Carradine plays the understated Guthrie powerfully and pitch perfect as a gifted working man torn between his lofty ideals and his responsibilities. Wexler also came back on board the film as DOP, and beautifully photographed the dirty-dusty fields and factories Guthrie frequented with a golden, milky-sepia sheen that is almost unpredecdented in cinema (Wexler rightfully won the Oscar that year). The understated earth tones of the picture work in synergy with the fantastic score which is woven in and out of the film. “Bound for Glory” is by no means Ashby’s best work and it falters a little under its own sense of importance and its length coming in at 147 minutes, but much like anything Ashby touched in the ‘70s, it is well worth traveling. [B]

“Coming Home” (1978)
Another movie with a message, “Coming Home” was one of the first films to really put America under the microscope after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and another case of Ashby replacing another director who bowed out of the project. The helmer’s gift for evoking a period in time on celluloid is uncanny, and used to great effect in “Coming Home.” The pop soundtrack of the time — Beatles, Rolling Stones, Tim Buckley, etc — guides the action rather than simply underscoring it, reflecting a time when pop music truly meant something. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is also en-pointe, with the muted tones creating a sense of documentary style realism: it’s perhaps the director’s most unvarnished-looking film. “Coming Home”’s undoing is its descent from observational-style post-Vietnam America movie, to a love-triangle-story with two Vietnam vets and Jane Fonda in the middle of it all. While this unfortunate sentimental vein goes on to run through what now feels like every love-story cliche — i.e. nurse falling for a patient in a hospital — the picture was strikingly poignant at the time, and the actors, especially Jon Voight, deliver searing powerhouse performances, overcoming the somewhat hokey plot (the picture would earn 8 Academy Award nominations and win 3 including Best Actor and Actress for the aforementioned leads; it would be Ashby’s one and only Oscar nomination for Best Director). The closeness of “Coming Home” to the events it portrays is clear, as the movie is something of a mish-mash of issues and ideas, but still a powerful one, and the film’s ending is reflective of the state of America post-Vietnam; unsettled and disturbed by the lack of resolution. [B+]

“Being There” (1979)
If you’re going to exit the stage after an incredible career spanning multiple genres, eras, filmmaking styles and auteurs, you could do worse than Peter Sellers’ swan song. The final film released before his death, Sellers is wonderfully funny as Chance, a gardener for a major Washington figure who accidentally gets recruited into politics despite being a complete simpleton. It’s a lesson on the power of the idle-minded to rouse a particular base of disenfranchised citizens, particularly as the accidentally-rebranded Chauncey gives advice on gardening that is mistaken for political knowledge. “Being There,” in its own way, is a horror film, a testament to how easily the public can be fooled by a little window dressing and a few idiots with even the most basic understanding of life. It’s a testament to how far ahead in the game were Hal Ashby and writer Jerzy Kosinski (disappointingly, with his only screenplay credit) that the plot of “Being There” eventually got turned into a massive global hit, re-appropriated, SANS SATIRE, as “Forrest Gump.” How little we’ve learned. [A]

“Lookin’ To Get Out” (1982)
A wonderful concept in theory and an excellent retroactive tool in cinema, the director’s cut can only be so powerful when it comes from an artist in decline. Such was the case with “Lookin’ To Get Out,” the 1982 Hal Ashby oddball buddy comedy about two New York gamblers on the run in Las Vegas. Barely released and just dumped into theaters by Paramount at the time, the picture found a new lease on life in 2009 when the “extended version” was released on DVD, leading to cinephile revisionist claims of a lost masterpiece. Not quite. Starring Jon Voight, Ann-Margret and Burt Young, the film was the second picture in Ashby’s unfortunate losing streak in the 1980s, ironic given “Lookin’ To Get Out” — which was co-“written”/improvised by Voight and screenwriter Al Schwartz — was essentially about a gambler down on his luck with one last shot at redemption. Ripped apart gently by critics at the time (the beloved Ashby always got a pass, or at least at first he did), the reconstituted version is better, allowing for breathing space, meditative moments and a less truncated rhythm, but let’s be honest with ourselves, the picture is still fairly average with some middling humor that’s almost pratfall-ish at times. Frustrated with Paramount’s meddling at the time, Ashby abandoned the picture leaving it to his editor Bob Jones to finish it. But even this slightly longer version reveals Ashby’s laidback magic-in-a-bottle genius was starting to sadly wane. [C+]

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1983)
“The Last Waltz,” “Gimmie Shelter,” “Stop Making Sense,” these are the classics that come to mind when you’re describing the all-time live-concert documentaries. So there’s good reason that not many people have heard of, let alone seen, Hal Ashby’s 1983 live music doc, “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” documenting The Rolling Stones‘ 1981 North American Tour promoting Tattoo You. Near the beginning of Ashby’s sad decline (and after the bomb “Second-Hand Hearts”), the doc is largely uninspired, moving from wide shot, medium shot, close-up and back ad nauseum. While there’s a bit of backstage footage here and there to break-up the monotony of a concert shot in day light in a gigantically impersonal outdoor stadium in Arizona (where much of the footage comes from), none of it illuminates at all and the peek behind the curtain is nothing more than the Stones smiling at the camera or doing their hair. Ashby allegedly overdosed before one of the shows in Phoenix as his health was already deteriorating and his drug-intake was beginning to rise. An unfortunate and completely forgettable concert documentary and for Stones completeists only. [C-]

“The Slugger’s Wife” (1985)
Considering his unassailable run of classics in the 1970s, Hal Ashby’s missteps in the 1980s, due to poor choices and circumstances (more than just drugs too; bad luck with studios, clouded judgement, poor scripts, films that went into production without finished scripts), were heartbreaking. One of the biggest, though not particularly horrible, just extremely dated, is 1985’s “The Slugger’s Wife.” Based on a Neil Simon script that never seemed to be especially suited to Ashby’s sensibilities (the author was billed over-top of the director and somehow he had more control), the romantic comedy centers on two lovers from opposite ends of the social spectrum; a boorish, hotshot Major League baseball player (Michael O’Keefe), and an ambitious, fiercely independent singer (Rebecca DeMornay) in an ’80s synth-pop band (co-fronted by Loudon Wainwright III performing covers of Neil Young and Prince) trying to get her career off the ground. Head over heels, the cavalier ball player quickly woes the woman with his dopey charms, much to her chagrin. The picture’s conceit: the deeper the athlete falls in love, the better his hitting game gets, to the point that he becomes the Atlanta Braves’ star player. But as soon as the relationship becomes tempestuous, his batting average starts to plummet and it’s up to the ball team (Martin Ritt, Randy Quaid and Cleavant Derricks) to get him back on track. Shot by Caleb Deschanel, even his keen lens can’t really help this largely unfunny misfire. [C+]

“8 Million Ways To Die” (1986)
It wasn’t his very last directing work, but the cop thriller “8 Million Ways To Die” was Ashby’s last big-screen work. And quite frankly, we wish it hadn’t been. Making even the rest of his ’80s output look genius in comparison, the film’s a none-more-eighties picture, based on a Lawrence Block novel, starring Jeff Bridges as a disgraced drug cop, out to avenge the death of a prostitute. Despite a script that Oliver Stone and Robert Towne both took a pass at, the plot never escapes cliche, and the cast, which also includes Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia, mostly mistakes shouting for drama. More importantly, Ashby was singularly unsuited for the genre — it never feels like his heart’s in it, directing the picture like a parody of early, “Miami Vice”-period Michael Mann, and when he does try to be more distinctive, it mostly falls flat — we recall a bizarre confrontation between Bridges and Garcia over ice cream cones that felt like something from a Zucker Brothers movie. A sad conclusion to a titanic career. [D]

There are a few more films, during the ‘80s downward spiral, but so far none of them are available on any format currently and considering all of them were routinely ignored during their day, and aren’t considered undiscovered classics, we may be waiting a long time. However, Nick Dawson, the aforementioned writer of Ashby’s autobiography, discovered, or at least helped flush out, the extended version of “Lookin’ To Get Out,” and to hear him tell it there could very well still be director’s versions of “Second-Hand Hearts,” “The Slugger’s Wife” and “8 Million Ways To Die” hitting DVD one day (“The Slugger’s Wife” is on DVD, but in a fairly barebones version). The director’s cut of “Lookin To Get Out” suggests that these films surfacing won’t be the unveiling of any unfound holy grails, but for Ashby enthusiasts, they would be great closure to his tale. Might we suggest a box-set that lumps all these pictures together? And while Ashby tried unsuccessfully to get Neil Young to score “The Landlord” (he even wrote some music, but it never panned out), the two finally paired together in 1984 for the concert film “Solo Trans” and we’d be curious to eventually see that as well.

As mentioned, Ashby’s solo Best Director nomination came for 1978’s “Coming Home,” but his effortless comfort with directing actors would do well for many of their careers. Two of Lee Grant’s Oscar nominations came from Ashby films and she even won her only Best Supporting Role Oscar for “Shampoo” (excellent character actor Jack Warden also earned himself a supporting Oscar nod for that film). Both Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid were nominated for their turns in “The Last Detail” and 2 of the 4 Academy Award nominations that the great screenwriter Robert Towne received would come from Hal Ashby films (‘Detail,’ & ‘Shampoo’). Peter Sellers would earn his third Oscar nomination for “Being There” under Ashby, and Melvyn Douglas actually won the Best Supporting Oscar for that film. While the conventional wisdom goes that Ashby himself wasn’t appreciated from the Hollywood establishment during his day and didn’t get full recognition for his work until after his death, his seven ‘70s films combined for a total of 24 Oscar nominations and seven wins, which isn’t too shabby. Maybe a posthumous honorary Oscar isn’t out of the question one of these days? Tip of the cap to Hal. He is still missed. – Rodrigo Perez, Samantha Chater, Oliver Lyttelton, Cory Everett, Gabe Toro

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